The Psychology of Food

The Psychology of Food

17th November 2019

As the proverb goes “you can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink”. I feel this is one of the biggest truisms – if not a little cliched - when it comes to nutrition. Many people know (to a degree) what they should be eating, but often fall short of feeding themselves the goodness they need to thrive.

Being human we can struggle with our internal dialogue at times. Lot’s of ifs, buts and maybes, scattered with half hearted attempts and promises of change tomorrow. Sometimes it’s feel like you’ve taken one step forward only to be knocked off your pedestal two steps back down. It can leave us feeling even more despondent about it all.

Our relationship with food goes deep into the human psyche, revealing our inner most insecurities and desires, which is constantly manipulated by how we see the world. What may look appetising to one person may not seem so to another.

As the Sufi poet Rumi once said “A satiated man and the hungry man do not see the same thing when they look upon a loaf of bread”.

Moulding the Mind

From the day we’re born our mind is like putty and willing to absorb information like a sponge. The environment we’re exposed to starts to create our perceptions of food – the cultural and religious views passed on from our parents, alongside the media we digest sculpt our eating habits.

From my own child hood I can recall some of the adverts on television. Kellogg’s Frosties Tony the Tiger “THEY’RE GRRREAT!” springs to mind – as does the colourful Ronald Mcdonald – and the infamous Coca-Cola Christmas advert with the red trucks rolling into town to the tune “holidays are coming, holidays are coming!”.

All seemed so innocent and jovial at the time – bright cartoon characters and Christmas jingles. Great! I want some of that! I latched on to Frosties for a while as my breakfast (crunchy nut cornflakes was my next). I’d often ask my parents when we were on the road if we could stop at Mcdonalds. Thankfully they rarely succumbed to my requests. Although I never really took a shining to Coca-Cola I did have a thing for Dr. Pepper because it was so misunderstood!

I can only imagine the bombardment of adverts children receive today through the vast amounts of media they consume.

It’s a clever combination of colours, sounds and tastes that gets future generations hooked on cheap foods lacking nutrients. In the UK one in three children is either overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. The latest statistics published by the NHS estimates one in eight 5 to 19 year old’s had a mental disorder in 2017.

What is this doing to their self confidence and image of themselves? Bullying and teasing at this age can leave deep scars and reinforce negative eating behaviours that will haunt them for years to come.

Shaped so profoundly through these early years, children’s minds should be given the greatest chance to flourish. A right approach to eating can have such a positive effect on a child’s health. It’s imperative we do more to give future generations the start the need to be better human beings and custodians of planet Earth.

Sensual Stimulation

The marketing matrix continues pulling on our desires well into adult life…this time things get sexualised!

I’m sure most will be familiar with the diet coke advert from the 90’s. The one where the women in an office scurry to the window in anticipation of the builders having their “diet coke break”. They salaciously peer downwards as a male peels off his t-shirt and pulls open a can of diet coke, leans back, eyes closed, gulping on it’s contents. All this goes on with Etta James “I just want to make love to you” playing. It’s been replicated over the years in many guises.

Food and sex have been a match made in heaven for thousands of years. The Romans reportedly had vast banquets and erotic dancers with men and women of the night on offer for guests pleasure. In more recent times the nine to fiver Dolly Parton stated “My weakness has always been food and men – in that order”.

Today we’re swamped with celebrity chefs who have us salivating in front on the television set, mesmerised with their gastronomical mastery. Some also use their sexuality to get our heart rates jumping and other bodily fluids flowing.

And who hasn’t had a “food orgasm”? Just give me some dark chocolate and peanut butter and I’m all yours! (Chocolates an aphrodisiac right? Along with oysters, red wine and asparagus – a great source of sexually stimulating nutrients apparently!)

Let’s be blunt – sex sells. And if food manufactures can us it to sell to you then they will. Combine the two together and things really start to get messy! (Re Nigella above)

Supermarket sweep

Supermarkets are cleverly seductive also. Offers on cheap profitable foods are placed conveniently at entrances of stores, and at the end of isles, grabbing your attention easily. Their usually highly palatable – often with added sugar – making repeat customers extremely likely.

Add to that big bright red signs, which don’t just catch your eye – they’re also used to evoke your emotions. Research has shown it stimulates urgency, raising blood pressure and heart rates associated with excitement and passion (see, food and sex again!).

If we walk around with emotions running high we can be easily seduced. Food and drink is often our comfort in times of stress – red wine and chocolate is a match made in heaven!

Rarely do we see offers on fruit and veg, although I think the tide maybe turning (Aldi have their weekly super six). But they can be a hard sell. Only 29% of the adult UK population eats their five-a-day.

With all this mind warping going on how can we truly know what’s good for us.

The ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ scenario

We have a tendency to categorise pretty much everything – the good, bad, and indifferent. So what’s happening with our views on the foods we eat?

We can get into dangerous territory by pigeon holing foods as “good” and “bad”, causing unnecessary anxieties and muddled perceptions of what food actually is.

Okay, let’s not beat around the bush, some foods are better for us than others. Avoiding processed foods will help you in developing a healthy relationship with food. But dancing with the devil every now and again does have it’s benefits.

I have my food pleasures – cake and chocolate are a daily none negotiable! For some these maybe seen as “guilty” pleasures. For me there’s not guilt involved, even when I have a late night cupboard raid!

I’m fortunate that I can have my cake and eat it (I’m talking home made treats here, not Mr. Kipling’s “exceedingly good (bad) cakes”). This is down to my mindset and training regimen. I tell myself these foods don’t just taste great, but they’ll nourish me, staying strong, lean and healthy in the process.

This is where a lot of people can stumble. The stories they tell themselves about the foods they eat can negatively impact on their health even before they’ve eaten a single crumb.

Our associations with foods – whether positive or negative – trigger responses with the brain and body before anything enters our mouth. Your thoughts and emotions towards foods activate the brain, sending messages to your digestive system.

Say we go for a coffee and I suggest we grab a doughnut to go with. Your response is one of delight and great anticipation with little guilt involved. This will stimulate your digestive system in a positive manner. Your gut, pancreas, liver and other digestive organs will start secreting the necessary chemicals to enable the proper digestion and absorption of the nutrients from the doughnut. The calories will be used efficiently and the pleasure will be longer lasting. Super duper…everyone’s a winner!

Let’s flip that scenario on it’s head. You’re not 100% keen at the though of having the doughnut because you’ve deemed it a “bad” food through dietary guidelines your following. But deep down you’d actually like to have it. With feelings of guilt you grab one. This negative response is replicated internally in the digestive system. It doesn’t work on metabolising the doughnut as effectively due to it being suppressed by negative feelings. Inhibitory signals via the nervous system can decrease the calorie burning potential via increases in the hormones insulin and cortisol, thus increasing the likely hood of those calories being stored as body fat.

So it could be a case of “you are what you think you eat”

Our thoughts are the engineer of our own down fall. If you think the doughnut will make you fat it most likely will. With that said I don’t suggest munching doughnuts morning, noon and night with a positive mindset that you won’t gain weight or feel bad in the process. (Let me experiment with it first…I’ll let you know of my findings!)

These perceptions on whether foods are “good” or “bad” come largely from scientific research and how it’s portrayed in the media. After all, we live in the age of materialism.

Bad Science

In 1958 an American scientist called Ancel Keys started his Seven Countries study, which looked at the association of dietary fats and cardiovascular disease. His findings showed that countries with high fat consumption had the highest rates of cardiovascular disease thus supporting the idea that dietary fat caused heart disease.

But there was some major flaws in his research. He intentionally left out countries that ate a lot of fat but didn’t have high rates of heart disease, such as Holland and Norway. Also he chose to leave out Chile, a country where fat consumption is low but incidences of heart disease are high.

Basically he went into the study with a predetermined theory and selectively used data that supported it. This is known as cherry picking.

The subsequent fall out is to be seen in the expanded waist lines and alarming rises in chronic diseases since his findings where used to reshape the “Western diet”.

In 1977 the US published a set of dietary goals to help reverse the epidemic of heart disease that took a low-fat, high-carb approach. Interestingly the rise obesity started around the same time as the guidelines where published, not long followed by the type 2 diabetes epidemic.

Clearly there are other factors at play, but I wouldn’t think it was sheer coincidence that human health has dwindle since the 1970’s because of these poor dietary guidelines.

We have to remember that science isn’t absolute and has many fixed dogmas. Also governments don’t always have our best interests at heart. Combined the two together and it can (and does) lead to us getting caught in some sticky situations.

Time for a digital detox?

Our understanding on nutrition is being warped more and more each day. We’re digesting more information than ever – largely through digital media – of which trying to determine what’s useful and what’s not is a minefield!

I recently found an article on a respected website written by someone who (apparently) has a phd in nutrition. They cited research to support the narrative of the piece. On closer inspection I found the research they had cited was flawed, as did several others.

So how are we supposed to grasp a true reflection on things when people – knowingly or unknowingly – misrepresent information?

We see headlines, click, then scroll and skim to take what we think necessary. If something’s of value we’ll take our time with due care and diligence to investigate further. But there’s constant upheaval in the world of nutrition (some warranted, but most should be ignored) that could lead us on an endless quest, never really knowing what to believe.

Is there a solution?

I think there is. I suggest it’s time we unplugged, switched on, and tuned in. Leave the internet of things behind for a while and really start listening to our bodies – we’d do well in nurturing our internal cues of hunger, satiation, taste and satisfaction without distraction.

The more we connect with our True Self and the natural world around us, the easier it becomes to understand what we need to thrive… 

The best diet we can all feast on is the untainted bounty of Mother Nature!

Yours in love and health,